There is the ironic appreciation of Communist asceticism, in the form of themed restaurants, movie comedies like “Goodbye Lenin!”, and collectibles. (In the year of unification, 1990, Taschen brought out a lavishly illustrated art book devoted to “schönes” East German production design.) There is a yearning for the seriousness of underground art and satire made in defiance of a dictatorship, as exhibited last year in the New Museum’s “Ostalgia” show. There are cautionary movies, notably “The Lives of Others,” as well as documentaries and artworks drawing on the liberated files of the Stasi, the DDR ubiquitous and highly bureaucratic state police — and there are more nuanced attempts to reproduce the mentalité of Germany’s “Red Atlantis” like Christian Petzold’s “Barbara.” Petzold’s parents moved from East to West Germany a year before the Berlin Wall went up and his cinematic excavation of the DDR is as curious about the otherness of life there as it is censorious.
An introspective thriller, “Barbara” is the first feature by the 50-year-old German director to get a wide release in the US; one of the critical hits of the last New York Film Festival and an Oscar nominee, it opens December 21 in New York, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C. The movie, which stars Petzold’s frequent leading lady Nina Hoss in the title role as a rebellious, yet constrained, young doctor, is a sort of double period piece — it’s set in the late Cold War, at the dawn of the East German state’s final decade and shot with a precise, understated visual style that harks back to mid period Fassbinder. But Petzold, a leading figure in the so-called Berlin School, is quieter, more humanist and less hard-edged than his attitudinous precursor.
More observational than showy, “Barbara” is basically a character and situation study that gradually evolves into a moral tale. Exiled from Berlin to a provincial for the crime of seeking an exit visa, the protagonist is furiously self-contained (“sulky” according to her new colleagues) even as, dedicated to her profession, she undergoes a crisis of conscience. A lean actress with fabulous posture, the largely unsmiling, Hoss is the brisk, cool, chain-smoking embodiment of inner turmoil and passive resistance. Although standoffish, she is nonetheless thrown together with a senior colleague (Ronald Zehrfeld), a friendly, bearish guy also banished from Berlin (but, so he says, for a medical rather than political mistake). He could be a Stasi informant, an Communist true believer assigned to acclimate Barbara, or simply smitten by her. Actually, there’s a strong possibility that he’s all of the above. Suspenseful even when one figures out wherein Barbara’s essential sense of duty lies, the movie builds up to a remarkably subtle and resonant open ending.
Ostensibly naturalistic, “Barbara” is not without an allegorical aspect. East Germany is visualized as clean, functional, modern hospital — the institution is strangely understaffed, although freely used by the police. In a sense, Barbara is also a patient there. The movie maps a world of free-floating suspicion, constant surveillance, and disciplinary humiliation. Anyone could be a spy; everyone is complicated and compromised. Thus, “Barbara” less a straightforward attack on the Communist system than a recognition of the ways in which the enforced idealism of the East German police state promoted unintended and even oppositional forms of solidarity, selflessness, social awareness and strength of character — things perhaps lost in the more prosperous and freer West.
Image: Adopt Films